Taking Modernism to the WoodshedJohn Haber
in New York City
Someone has done it at last: Martin Puryear has tamed the atrium.
At the Museum of Modern Art, his retrospective begins there, and the work does not just tower above. It lifts one's eye with it, to get the full measure of the walls and windows. Rather than cut that wasted space down to size, it exaggerates the proportions, with sculpture that seems to extend to the vanishing point.
Characteristically as well, Puryear pulls it off with the show's most vulnerable structures and humble materials. It does not look half bad from above either. It looks even better as one circles back to get close. By then one has to decide just how familiar it is. For such quiet, formal, and crafted work, it implies any number of hidden histories.
Chutes and ladders
In all fairness, not every work downstairs has died since Yoshio Taniguchi devoted several floors to a glorified hotel lobby. True, as Jed Perl noted, Water Lilies by Claude Monet looked as pink and pathetic as a Band-Aid. And true, MOMA has already acknowledged the need for more serious display space by cutting a deal with yet another likely high-rise neighbor. Still, Jennifer Bartlett in Rhapsody had new lessons as a tall mural rather than winding around multiple gallery rooms. Even paintings of ordinary dimensions by Cy Twombly have managed quite well, and Pipilotti Rist threatens before long to overflow the space on video. Consider, however, how this artist does it.
Two works rise impressively. One, somewhere between a cart and a hand truck, bears a light-colored boulder. Its size and the cut planes of its surface assert its enormous mass. And in place of the rear of the cart, a tree limb tapers into the sky. At least it appears that way, for one has still to ask what Puryear has found in nature and what of nature he has learned to craft.
The other work ascends just as precipitously. Ladder for Booker T. Washington twists and also narrows, as if seen in perspective. Its title, suggesting a monument, exaggerates its height further. Implicitly, too, he insists on his own stature as an artist in the museum. Last time out, even Richard Serra chose to skip the atrium. An African-American, Puryear seems to say, need concede nothing to Minimalism.
One could, however, just as easily single out his modesty. Suppose one strips the installation of its metaphors. Rather than single-point perspective, the bends and tapering would then leave only fragility. The odd back of the cart would deny the artist a lever to move the weight of the rock. The found image and object would deny him an artist's shaping hand or special privilege.
The two works also share the space with a third, in a decidedly haphazard arrangement. While the scale, appropriation, and references to a construction site relate to Minimalism, the objects sit apart from one another and from the viewer. Instead of installation art, they have roots in sculptural tradition or Surrealist painting. Come to think of it, the ladder may quote a painting in MOMA by Joan Miró, and Constantin Brancusi long ago took wooden sculpture off its pedestal. Nor should one take for granted its claim to speak for history, including black history. As always, Puryear came up with his title as an afterthought.
Upstairs in the sixth-floor galleries, his more typical work has the same ambition and ambiguity. It can look funny or formal, modest or massive, Minimalist or Modernist, obsessively crafted or hung out to dry. The installation departs from chronology, just placing wall pieces on the walls and floor pieces on the floor. One can walk through it quite quickly before realizing how much one has seen—or how much one has missed. The sculptor did not evolve all that much anyhow. He wanted something less single-minded than at first appears all along.
Humanizing the minimal
Born in 1941, Puryear usually comes with the awkward label Post-Minimalist. He says that he took Minimalism in and spat it out, but I am not so sure. Except in the atrium, his work has a size typical of Minimalism. It has no pedestals and rests of its own weight. It favors abstract, fairly regular shapes like cones and cylinders. One circulates around it rather than contemplates it from a detached distance.
It also has Minimalism's interests in process and in the materials of the ordinary work world, like the cartwheels. Upstairs, an incomplete circle on the wall resembles a bottle opener, and he calls several works Lever. As a black man, he made it through the culture wars and the GOP southern strategy without producing overtly political art. He just kept going. At the same time, however, he humanizes his inherited forms. He gives them a history—in modern art and in their own organic growth.
Like Joel Shapiro in those years, he kept simple building blocks but turned from synthetic and industrial substances to wood. At times it takes on a fine polish, and at times it looks roughly hewn. One should not, however, too hastily associate the polished surfaces with art or the rough ones with nature. Puryear's dialogue with craft and materials takes all sorts of turns.
Like Shapiro's, too, Puryear's assemblages may have the look of living things. A Lever may pun on a hare or a snail. A basket may have the nib of a bird. Living things enter through suggestions of use as well. A pinched torus with a suggestive profile, titled Deadeye, looks a bit like a crude jug left unstoppered. As in the atrium, even the material from a tree can serve as a found object.
Minimalism insisted on a work's physical presence, and it made that presence inseparable from the viewer's incursion into a shared space. Shapiro, for one, retains allusions to the human body in his stick figures, and figuration turned up everywhere by the early 1980s. Puryear, too, makes the body part of both image and object. His wood slats might cradle a space for the viewer or a cocoon for something in nature. Like Shapiro, too, an encounter with the human hand has the playfulness of a child's toy and the sly edge of an adult's manipulation. Instead of Shapiro's pick-up sticks, Puryear's cones might resemble baskets for a ball game—or a shell game.
Again he looks backward from Minimalism, too. How unique was 1960s art after all? David Smith and Louise Nevelson had incorporated the workshop and tool bench into their images well before. Besides Surrealism, Puryear's wooden atrium tower also makes me think of V. Tatlin's Monument for the Third International. A proper Minimalist, Dan Flavin, had already quoted just that.
A place to stand
Puryear's materials and references to tools also refer to his craft. A bare circle of Cerulean on the wall conveys both the geometric rigor of the 1960s and a boast: this is all it takes to make art if the artist says so. I thought of the fable of the painter who proved his skill simply by drawing a circle.
Other materials include tar, and one can imagine life outside the art world in Puryear's native Washington, D.C. And here one might look for an indirect assertion of black history and American art after all, in the rural south. He has taken Modernism back to the woodshed, but not for punishment. Coal tar makes black his most prominent color as well.
Several shows recently have recovered the 1970s as a time of greater flexibility than one might have guessed. It no longer appears solely as a final, watered-down version of formalism or as a sudden turning away. Rather, it also serves as a transition between late Modernism and the present, between math class and phys ed. Work that already rests on the ground could slide about or melt entirely. It could even rise up again toward the sky. Phallic overtones welcome, but not without self-awareness of who is making art.
A Puryear retrospective could easily continue a show at the Studio Museum of "Black Artists and Abstraction." His low-key style and allusiveness comports, too, with that museum's frequent theme of "post-black identity," as with Kori Newkirk and Demetrius Oliver. That label did not exist when Puryear set to work, but he could well have anticipated it.
Puryear's quiet style has made him easy to take for granted. It has made him familiar but not emblematic of anything. He has a sense of humor, but he never laughs at things, including art. He pares things away, but without the harsher implications of hewn, piled fragments by Ursula von Rydingsvard. He makes baskets, but not for David Hammons's ghetto playground. He makes art of the museums, to the point that museums had forgotten to give him the show he deserved.
Perhaps he is easy to take to heart, harder to take as one's cause. He knows quite well by himself when and when not to pick a fight. He has too much concern for art, too much clarity, and too much detachment not to know. He also has too much confidence. As someone once said about a lever, "give me a place to stand on and I will move the world." So what if the lever one day blossoms into a tree?
Martin Puryear ran at The Museum of Modern Art through January 14, 2008.